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The Nature of Expertise

A vanished backpacker and two ice tunnel collapses illustrate that most expertise is merely local knowledge

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Wow, the days have slipped by. I’ve had my head buried in 2009 catalogs, selecting stuff to test for next April’s Gear Guide, because from now through December, BP staffers and testers will be putting all this outdoor schwag through the wringer. Toss in a couple hard weekend biking sessions, along with my usual moaning, zombie-like recovery, and damn if it’s already blogging time again. Conveniently, however, and as usual for late summer, there’s been no shortage of painful epics to analyze.

The French Alps continue to stack up casualties. Last week a massive avalanche peeled off the north face of Mount Blanc du Tacul at 11,800 feet and swept across the heavily used lower glacier on the standard route up Mount Blanc (15,780-feet), Europe’s highest peak. Eight climbers were killed, seven others were injured, three of them seriously. It happened in an area known for serac-fall threat. Avalanche beacons later showed that the eight missing climbers were all swept into a crevasse and buried under tons of fractured ice. Their bodies will remain there. Aerial helicopter footage shows the serac peeled off about 1,000 feet above a lower-angled snowfield. Ice ran the whole distance, roaring down on several groups of roped climbers. The causation here is similar to the recent avalanche that killed 11 climbers in the Hourglass couloir on K2 at 27,000 feet elevation. Roughly 100 climbers and trekkers have died in the Alps this season, 20 of them in the Mount Blanc area. That’s an average year for this steep, gnarly, busy range.

In the U.S., three incidents illustrate what I think are important concepts and cautions in wilderness safety:

First off, Yi-Jien Hwa, a fit 27-year-old hiker from Malaysia and Lexington, Kentucky, remains missing, probably off-trail, in Glacier National Park. Hwa, a six-foot-one-inch, 170-pound seminary student, had become an avid backpacker in the last several years, listing perhaps six major destination backpacks annually. He has not been seen since August 11th when he picked up his permit for a 7-day, 96-mile backpack route that began in the Sperry region, then wandered north across Floral Park, Gunsight Pass, the Highline Trail, and Goat Haunt to end at Kintla Lake near the Canadian border. Hwa was due out on August 18th.

More than 2,500 search hours, including foot searchers, horseback parties, rescue dogs and aerial observation have turned up no clues to Hwa’s whereabouts. His car was located in Logan Pass parking lot, probably positioned there for a resupply. No other backcountry parties have reported encountering Hwa. The early portion of Hwa’s route includes areas of cross-country travel, but much of the route lies on the popular Highline. Searchers think it’s unlikely that Hwa ever made it onto the route’s trailed northern portions, since campers never saw him at his first night’s campsite.

Currently searchers are concentrating on a high tundra bowl called Floral Park, which lies between Sperry Glacier and Logan Pass. The area includes remnant glacier, loose, cliff-strewn terrain, and endless boulderfields and talus. With so many searchers and so few clues, it’s probable that Hwa took a fall early in his journey, and probably well off-route.Thunderstorms and fog hampered searchers throughout last week. While Hwa was clearly an active backpacker who was rapidly gaining experience, he was unfamiliar with northern Rockies environments, and particularly the very loose rock and impressive mountain storms that characterize Glacier.

The same “unfamiliar environment” concept figures into the tale of Richard Felder (58) a hiker from Houston, Texas who fell through a snow bridge in Avalanche Canyon in Wyoming’s Tetons and was stranded for over 30 hours, in the open, with serious injuries. Felder was on a backpacking trip with his wife Patty along the Teton Crest Trail when he changed plans and decided to descend via barely trailed Avalanche Canyon, rather than the usual Cascade Canyon trail descent. He had apparently read about the route through Avalanche Canyon in a recent issue of Backpacker Magazine

However, the Backpacker article describes Avalanche Canyon in the opposite direction, citing difficult routefinding. While descending past Snowdrift Lake, Felder lost the user trail in cliff bands and snowfields and ended up getting suckered into the outlet stream gully below Snowdrift Lake, rather than descending gentler talus fields to the north. He had no ice axe, but kept descending on increasingly sketchy terrain until he dropped through a snowbridge into the stream beneath, receiving significant injuries. Felder managed to climb out, but while re-donning his pack at the top of the hole, he took another fall, going over a 10-foot cliff and sustaining broken bones, internal and head injuries. The now seriously injured Felder was unable to get most gear out of his pack, and spent the night shivering in the open. Fortunately, searchers found him just before darkness fell on the second night.

It’s easy to disparage these kinds of accidents as flatlanders in the big leagues, but vacation season brings many locally experienced backpackers and hikers into destination environments that are far different from, and often more challenging than, the country they came from. It’s not a matter of being a ‘newbie.’ It’s that most outdoor expertise is local experience, and whenever you leave your area of local experience, you automatically take a big step back in expertise. The same principle would apply to an experienced mountaineer in the Arizona deserts.

In fact, I still vividly remember my first-ever slickrock country backpack. I’d been a mountaineer for 12 years. I was a working guide in Colorado, leading clients ski mountaineering, anup technical 14ers like the Maroon Bells. I set out to hike Dark Canyon in the San Juan country of southern Utah, but instead spent four days lost (in Lost Canyon), confused by the negative, incut topography. It took two days of running grid patterns through the pinyon just to find my truck.

The whole concept got further drilled into me while doing Adventure Guide scouts. Up to three times each summer I spend two to three weeks scouting unusual trips in different national parks, leapfrogging between radically different environments like Big Bend, Yosemite, Glacier, Zion, the Canadian Rockies, and Organ Pipe. Each time it’s like landing on a new planet. Trailheads to find. Weather to dial in. I make idiot mistakes in gear and route choices all the time. After several rounds of epics, now I usually do my day hike scouting first, just to get oriented, then move on to backpacking trips. So build in some caution, especially on big, bad, once-a-summer trips.

Aside from that, Mr. Felder’s epic points out at least five very common mistakes that often get hikers into trouble. They are:

–Don’t change plans enroute.

–Never separate. Start together; stay together.

–Never travel on steep snow unless you have an ice axe, gloves and self-arrest skills.

–Don’t get sucked into descending gullies unless you want to. Gullies always look like the obvious descent, and it’s easy to continue downhill when you should climb back up and look for an alternate route.

–Always avoid snow bridges, whether they’re over streams, boulder fields, or glacier crevasses. They’re a commonly encountered trap in alpine terrain, and they can be deadly.

That last caution also figures into the recent tale of two Washington teenagers, Allesandro Gelmini, 14, and Alec Corbett, 17, who nearly died when a roadside snow cave they were investigating collapsed on top of them. Rescuers arriving on scene near Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass expected both boys would be dead, judging by the huge blocks that buried them, but when they chainsawed down through the rubble they found both victims in surprisingly good condition. They had been buried between “two stories” of ice for over five hours. Both boys were able to walk from the wreckage, but later underwent back surgery for broken spines. And in mid-summer SAR reporting, that counts as good news. Hike safe. — steve howe

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